Gas and food poisoning: when heating and eating can turn dangerous

Your refrigerator and your stove can turn into silent killers if used improperly.

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Power failures have gripped the Montreal region this week.

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That means people huddling in their homes are finding creative ways to keep warm. Health authorities warn that trying to stay warm during an outage can have some dangerous consequences, such as carbon monoxide poisoning, as at least 180 cases were reported to Montreal public health as of Sunday. Food poisoning can also be a risk for people opening their fridges or freezers after an outage.

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Here is a breakdown of what you need to know.

Carbon monoxide is a silent killer

Carbon monoxide’s danger lies in fact there are several obvious signs of poisoning before it becomes serious. It is an odorless gas, so it’s difficult to know when it has permeated the air.

The main symptoms are headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and chest pain. Other symptoms include chest pain, problems with vision and difficulty concentrating. The most severe signs are co-ordination problems, muscle paralysis and loss of consciousness.

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Newborns, children and the elderly can suffer greater symptoms from poisoning, as can pregnant women, smokers and people with underlying conditions.

Keep fuel-powered devices outside

Many homeowners have installed generators that run on fuel such as propane or diesel, but some make the mistake of running them in their garages or too close to a window. Both those situations can result in carbon monoxide entering the house. Montreal public health reminds people to follow the instructions carefully when installing a generator, and be sure it is outdoors and away from windows, doors or ventilation systems. Fireplaces can pose problems if their chimneys are improperly cleaned or if they have not been maintained regularly.

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When there isn’t a power failure, outdoor heaters used to create a warm space in a yard or on a porch can present a risk to people inside if the heaters are running near open windows.

Health Canada also recommends that propane camping heaters or portable gas barbecues — no matter how small — never be used indoors, even near an open window.

Install a carbon monoxide detector

Even when there’s no outage, your home can be vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning. In fact, roughly two-thirds of households have an appliance that can emit carbon monoxide, while only half of them actually have detectors. Carbon monoxide can leak into the air through appliances that run on gas, such as stoves, dryers and water heaters. That’s why Quebec’s building code requires carbon monoxide detectors in any home that has an attached garage, or a combustion appliance. Those detectors should have battery backup in case of a power outage.

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CAA-Quebec reminds homeowners to never let a vehicle idle in a garage even if it’s open, nor to use gas-powered leaf blowers or snowblowers inside the garage. It also recommends owners perform regular maintenance of such appliances, including ensuring that vents are not blocked.

Get out of the house

If you suspect there is carbon monoxide in your house, leave immediately and call the fire department. Don’t return until a firefighter has visited and assured that it is safe.

Thawed food: If in doubt, throw it out

Carbon monoxide isn’t the only danger for homes without power. Sometimes eating the food you carefully stored in your fridge or freezer can pose a risk both before and after the lights come back on.

According to Health Canada, a refrigerator can stay cool for four hours, while a full freezer’s contents can remain frozen for 48 hours (or 24 for a freezer that is half full).

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Any food that has been at room temperature for two hours or longer should be thrown out, as should anything with an unusual color or odor. However, food that doesn’t smell bad can still be contaminated, so the rule to follow is: If in doubt, throw it out.

Health Canada says food that still contains ice crystals or feels “refrigerator cold” can be re-frozen.

All raw food that has been leaked should be thrown out and the surfaces it touched should be cleaned thoroughly. The rags used to clean those surfaces should not be used to clean any other part of the house before being disinfected.

Keeping food cool without power

Do not put your food outside, as even with frigid temperatures, the sun’s rays can defrost food. You can store refrigerator items in a cooler with ice, or you can add bags of ice to a fridge to help it stay cold if the outage is expected to last longer than four hours.

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